The Future of Late Night Television

By Eric Zanzucchi (@ericzanzucchi)

A lot of problems are facing the major networks as cable channels continue to fracture their audiences. Johnny Carson is considered the gold standard for late night ratings, but he was competing against dead air. These days NBC has to compete in late night with CBS, ABC, Comedy Central, and all the movies and reruns that other networks offer. Leno and Letterman’s ratings have been in freefall for the past several years and now they’re paying the price. In Leno’s latest contract negotiation he accepted a paycut of $5-10 million as well as a significant staff size reduction. Letterman was forced to accept a similar paycut in 2009.

As the loyal Carson fans die off, I feel like late night television requires a reexamination. The networks must think so as well. If these shows are too expensive, we need to look no further than the structures of the shows themselves. The first half of these hour long shows flows decently usually with the monologue and a skit. The second half is loaded with commercials. They have two interviews, but they’re always promoting a product and the interviews often become contrived and awkward. They always end with a musical act for some reason.

I don’t understand why these shows need a second guest. Usually they’re obscure. I’d rather they just have one interesting guest and have a conversation with some depth rather than their stories about their recent vacation to Hawaii. Musical acts on these shows are as archaic as anything I can think of featured on television. When Carson was in his prime in the 70’s and 80’s seeing a musical act was great exposure for the band. Unless fans went to a live show they couldn’t see their favorite bands perform. With the internet it’s possible to see concerts of any major band on Youtube. The musical acts simply can’t be intriguing to their fans.

The half hour shows, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, are far more compelling because it seems like they’re doing just as much content as the hour long shows just without the filler. They have the same three phases as the hour long shows do: monologue, skit, and interview. However, no one phase feels like it’s dragging on too long. They also don’t do Friday shows. If you compare them side by side to Leno and Letterman, you’re comparing five hours of programming to two each week.

Now that these shows have become increasingly less economically feasible their staffing needs to seriously be rethought as well. Why do the hour long shows insist on having a ten piece band? They could hire an audio tech guy to create jingles and sound effects and cut the bands out completely. If the NBC, CBS and ABC shows cut their run times in half they could then cut down their writing staffs since they would need way less content.

As much as it pains me to say this I think the format networks should strive for is that of Chelsea Lately. She has a similar time breakdown to Colbert and Stewart spending 7-8 minutes on a monologue, skit, and interview. But she has the panel of commentators every night to help her out. Since she has the commentators she doesn’t need as big of a writing staff. There’s no band. A show in this format could really be done on the cheap and doesn’t need to draw a large audience to stay economically feasible.

I’m guessing that Leno and Letterman are grandfathered into this format and their shows won’t change. However, the next generation of late night talk shows is going to look a lot different.